Pumpkin Mac and Cheese
Oh so you have been bragging to all your friends have you? You have proclaimed yourself the pumpkin master and informed everyone that you can make pumpkin anything. Well your friends have decided to put you to the test by telling you to host a pumpkin dinner party. Each dish has to have pumpkin in it, in some way, shape or form. Now you are up a creek without a paddle, and you are afraid your boat will hit an iceberg along the way. Causing you to sink in front of all your friends. Having them all stare in awe and shock with their mouths’ agape. Sure it is one thing to tell everyone you are a pumpkin genius, but it is a whole other league to actually be one. First of all, you need to find new friends. If they are inviting themselves to your house and ordering you to cook for them, and you are agreeing to do it all the time, well then you have bigger problems on your hand than a little pumpkin dinner. How would they like it if you invited yourself over their house and demanded they cook? Granted, you should not have been bragging in the first place. You have no one to blame but yourself.
So now the big day has come and you are freaking out. You have realized that perhaps you are not so savvy with that orange squash, as you thought or as you led them to believe. Sure you have dessert covered. Who does not know a thing or two about pumpkin desserts? That is a walk in the park. It is the easiest route to take. The easiest way to transform that gourd. Let us turn our attention to the main course, however. The biggest part of the dinner. You are worried that you cannot make a delicious savory dish with the star ingredient are you not? And you should be. You have every right to be nervous. I would be if I were in your shoes. I am not going to lie to you, it is very difficult to get people to like pumpkin in savory dishes because everyone goes into it with the misconception that it will taste like dessert. Stop crying and shaking your head! You have nothing to worry about. I am here to help you. Lucky for you I am a pumpkin master. Together we will get through this. Together we will conquer. Now buck up. Shoulders high. Raise that chin, proud like you know what you are doing. You have to have confidence. Put on your apron. Grab a spoon and a whisk. Cross your arms. Turn and look at your reflection on the oven. You are a master. Okay that is enough, you have a dinner party to throw. What are you doing just standing there looking like a fool with your arms crossed holding a whisk and spoon?!?! You need to start working! You are behind!
The best way to make people like anything, I have found, is to drench it in butter and cheese and cover it in a creamy sauce. Throw in some pasta and your are golden. Stop giving me that look of confusion. It is simple really. You are going to make Pumpkin Mac and Cheese. It has everything that most people enjoy. Tie it in with some autumn flavors and you are good to go. What do sage and thyme and pumpkin scream out to you? Yes that is right, Thanksgiving. It spells out Thanksgiving. So it does not really spell out Thanksgiving, but you get the point. You are going to wow your friends with this dish.
You have put together the sauce—which is now a beautiful light orange color thanks to the pumpkin—and are now mixing in the pasta. Stop eating it. This is for your pushy self-inviting friends. Throw the mac and cheese into the ramekins, hurry. Sprinkle on the sage breadcrumbs. Stand back. Look at that. Admire the pumpkin mac and cheese. Does it not look delicious like I had promised? Does it not smell fantastic? Okay, what are you doing? Enough standing around. Pop the tray in the oven. These have to bake. Your friends are due at any minute! Look at yourself! You are a mess! There is flour on your face. Cheese sauce in your hair. Pull yourself together! You cannot let your friends see you like this! Go change! The door bell rings at the same time that the oven timer goes off. Just in time. Your soon-to-be-ex-friends are finally here and they enter with a look as if they know they have won. Little do they know you had an ace up your sleeve. Let the party begin.
We know this is going to be a delicious meal only because of one step.
Can anyone guess this one crucial step?
That’s right, butter.
Butter makes everything perfect and delicious.
We start by heating a large pot and melting some butter in it.
We’re going to add flour to the melted butter.
Whisk in the flour and allow it to cook for a few minutes, until it starts to smell nutty.
Then stream in the milk, while whisking constantly.
This ladies and gentlemen, is what we in the foodie world like to call a “roux.”
According to my trusty source, wikipedia, “A roux is a cooking mixture of flour and fat (traditionally butter). It is the thickening agent of three mother sauces of classical French cooking: béchamel sauce, velouté sauce, and espagnole sauce.”
So basically we are making a béchamel sauce. Which is a white sauce thickened by a roux. It’s a base for many recipes. We’re adding cheese to ours so that makes it a Mornay sauce.
Look at that, we’re learning all sorts of new things today.
Lower the heat, and allow the milk to thicken. Make sure to whisk often so it doesn’t burn at the bottom.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, let’s get to some yummier ingredients.
This wouldn’t be macaroni and cheese without the cheese.
Today we are using three different cheeses.
Why? Because I love cheese and one type of cheese just doesn’t cut it for me so I need three different kinds so I can be happy.
The first cheese is a white sharp cheddar.
My market has this white cheddar that is mixed with gruyere cheese, so that’s what I got. It’s a blend.
It’s better to grate cheese yourself, that way you know it’s fresh.
The other two cheeses are parmesan and fontina.
Now don’t make fun of me, but my market only had fontina cheese slices. I was too lazy to go to another market. And since I just wanted some comfort food and not deal with the hassle of tracking down whole fontina cheese to grate myself, I just got the slices.
Let’s turn our attention back to the béchamel sauce.
It should have thickened by now, especially if you’re like me and are a slow grater.
You will know that your sauce is thick and ready when you do the wooden spoon test.
What is the wooden spoon test you might ask? Well, thank you for asking. Step right up and I’ll tell you. The wooden spoon test is simple.
**Tip: Stick a wooden spoon in the sauce and give it a mix. Raise the spoon up and the back of the spoon should be coated. Run a finger straight down the middle. It should create a line. If the line stays and the sauce doesn’t run, then it is ready.**
Now that our sauce is ready we need to season it because believe you me, at this moment the sauce is as bland as it gets. If you tried eating it now, you wouldn’t like it.
We need to add some traditional and of course some non-traditional ingredients.
The seasoning are:
Freshly cracked black pepper.
Dried thyme (because pumpkin mac and cheese feels very autumny to me and thyme is a very thanksgiving ingredient).
I just have to say that I dislike when my posts go through these uneven stages where I end up with one lone picture of a seasoning and it can’t line up with the rest. My OCD is kicking in and now I’m forced to have the last seasoning on it’s own, and horizontal mind you.
Okay rant is over.
Once they have all been added, give it a stir.
And now for the main attraction.
The star of the show.
The November ingredient.
That up there is homemade pumpkin purée. You can make homemade pumpkin purée too, I encourage it, it is very easy to make it at home for yourself.
You’ll quickly realize that you do not need the store bought canned pumpkin because homemade pumpkin purée is so much better.
If you don’t know how to make it yourself, do not worry because I have a tutorial here. Homemade Pumpkin Purée.
You can use canned pumpkin if you’d like.
But really make your own.
That was a test, and if just said “Eh, I’ll just use the canned stuff.” Then you failed my test.
No but really the canned is fine.
Add the pumpkin and stir it into the sauce.
Many of you might be thinking that I’ve lost my mind by adding pumpkin to mac and cheese.
I’m sure that a lot of you have already tried this delicious dish, well you haven’t tried mine so you have to make it.
But I digress, it’s actually very tasty. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. So many people have the common misconception that you cannot cook with pumpkin, only bake with it. They attach a sweetness to it, and think that it will sweeten a dish because they’re used to it being in desserts.
In fact pumpkin isn’t sweet, not by a long shot. Perhaps a little sweet but in reality it’s just a vegetable. A squash. It’s amazing in savory dishes, and even better with pasta.
Give it a try.
And now for the cheese part to our mac and cheese.
Our freshly grated cheddar/gruyere mixture, parmesan, and fontina.
I know I know. You must resist the urge though. Rid the temptation of just grabbing a spoon and eating it.
It’s just cheese sauce. The cheese isn’t even melted yet! Get a hold of yourself.
Turn the heat off and mix the cheese until it is melted.
The heat from the sauce will finish melting it without the flame being on.
Okay, so the cheesy pumpkin sauce is done.
All you need now is some pasta.
Somewhere in between grating cheese, thickening milk, seasoning and what not you should cook the noodles.
Look magic, the pasta is cooked.
Just follow the directions on the box.
Bring COLD COLD water to a boil. Season it. Add the pasta. Stir. Cook two minutes under the recommended time.
Why are we under cooking the pasta?
**Tip: Whenever you make pasta that is going to continue cooking in the oven, it is best to under cook it when boiling, that way it can finish cooking in the oven without it overcooking and becoming mush.**
I know that I probably should use elbow macaroni since this is mac and cheese after all. However, pumpkin mac and cheese just feels and sounds so grown up that I wanted a grown up noodle. This one has lines, so the sauce sticks to it better.
But feel free to use which ever cut of pasta you prefer.
The good ol’ elbow macaroni will do just fine.
Add the cooked pasta to the sauce.
Gently fold in the sauce, making sure each noodle is evenly incorporated and coated with the sauce.
Time for the bake.
You can pour this into one large 9×13 baking dish.
Or you can be fancy like me and serve them in individual ramekins.
I like these festive thanksgiving ones thank you very much.
Stop eating the mac and cheese. Put the fork down.
Fill the ramekins!
I had some left over cheddar/gruyere and parmesan so I mixed it together and topped each with it.
Now at this time a normal person would pop these bad boys in the oven and allow them to heat through and the top get brown and crunchy.
Of course, Im not normal. So I’m taking it a step further.
When I think of pumpkin mac and cheese, I think about Thanksgiving. And Turkey. I don’t now why. Maybe because pumpkin is such an autumnal ingredient.
Well when I think of Thanksgiving and turkey, I tend to then think about sage. Sage is such a Thanksgiving herb. It brings me back to the holidays.
So I thought that this holiday dish needed a bit of sage.
And as if the top cheese layer isn’t crunchy enough, I also thought that this needs a breadcrumb topping. But not just any breadcrumb topping, oh no my friends, a sage breadcrumb topping.
Finely slice the sage.
In a small sauté pan or a pot, melt some butter.
Just a tad.
Don’t complain, it’s the holidays and this dish is loaded with cheese and milk so a little butter won’t do anything now. Might as well.
Add the sage.
Do this over low heat by the way.
Cook the sage, stirring constantly, until it becomes crunchy. Just about a minute.
Okay remove from the flame and let it cool slightly.
Let’s get the breadcrumb mixture together.
You’ll need panko (japanese style breadcrumbs, they give it more crunch) and plain unseasoned breadcrumbs.
If you can’t find panko you can just use the plain.
Or you can make your own.
Give it a mix.
Add the sage and butter.
Toss once again.
Sprinkle a liberal amount of the sage crumb topping onto each ramekin. I like my topping very crunchy so I add a lot.
These are now ready to go into a 375° oven.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until the mac and cheese is heated through and the topping is crunchy and golden brown.
You can also place them under the broiler for a few seconds to make sure it gets super brown and crunchy, at the end.
And just like that, you are done.
Dinner is served.
If you have been invited to a Thanksgiving dinner, the first thing you have to know is that you cannot go empty handed. You don’t want to be that one person who didn’t bring anything.
I suggest making this dish. It pleases both vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Why? Because it is filling.
I also think you should make it though because people will ask, “Oh what did you make?”
And you’ll respond casually and nonchalantly, “Pumpkin mac and cheese. I just threw it together.” As if it’s nothing. And then you’ll see their eyes open and ears perk up.
“Pumpkin mac and cheese?” They’ll ask all surprised and interested like.
“Yes, it’s very delicious,” you’ll proclaim.
Everyone will taste it and you’ll steal the entire show! Now doesn’t that sound like fun?
Although this is a perfect side dish to a Thanksgiving meal, it is also good any night of the week. Especially during autumn. This time of year, allows you to make fresh pumpkin purée which in turn will make this dish even more delicious. Your family will love it. Serve it with a garden salad (because let’s be honest, we need some greens to make up for the fact that this is nothing but milk, cheese, cheese, more cheese, pasta, breadcrumbs and more cheese).
But it’s the holidays. That’s what holidays are all about. Eating.
My best suggestion is to make these in individual ramekins. That way everyone gets their own portion and their own crunchy topping. We all know that’s the best part of mac and cheese, so this way no one has to fight over the topping because they each have their own.
Plus it makes serving a lot easier.
Saves you a step.
Have I convinced you to try it yet?
Forget about your previous pumpkin encounters. This is not like the others. This one is better.
This might be your new favorite dish for all you know. However, you wont know until you make and taste it.
Pumpkin Mac and Cheese
Yield: 6-8 servings
- 1 pound penne, or any cut of pasta you like
- 5 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 3/4 cup homemade pumpkin purée, or canned
- 2 cups (loosely) grated cheddar or gruyere cheese, plus more for topping
- 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for topping
- 1/4 cup fontina cheese, grated (or a few slices, like I used)
- 2 tablespoons fresh sage, sliced
- 1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
1. Preheat oven to 375º and place a 9×13 baking dish on a baking sheet or arrange 6-8 individual ramekins on a baking sheet. Set aside.
2. Cook pasta according to the directions on the package. Bring a large pot of cold water to a boil. Season with salt and add the dry noodles, stir often and cook 2 minutes under suggestion cooking time. It should not be overly soft. Drain and set aside.
3. To make the pumpkin cheese sauce, heat a large pot over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of butter and melt. Add the flour and whisk together. Cook for a few minutes until the mixture smells nutty. Stream in the milk while whisking the entire time. Bring to a simmer and allow the milk to thicken. You will know the sauce is ready when the back of a wooden spoon is coated and you can leave a line with your finger without the sauce running.
4. Once thickened, season with the dijon mustard, salt, pepper, dried thyme, onion powder, garlic powder and paprika. Stir in the pumpkin. Turn off the heat and add the shredded cheddar (reserving a bit), grated parmesan (reserving a bit) and fontina cheese. Stir until the cheeses melt and the sauce is evenly incorporated together. Add the cooked pasta and stir once more.
5. Pour into the baking dish or portion out into the individual ramekins. Top with reserved cheddar and parmesan if desired.
6. To make the sage breadcrumb toppings, heat a small pot over low heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and melt. Add the sliced sage and cook until crispy. Remove from heat and allow to slightly cool. In a small bowl combine the panko and plain breadcrumbs. Add the crispy sage and melted butter. Stir with a spoon and sprinkle evenly over the mac and cheese.
7. Bake in the center rack for about 25-30 minutes until golden brown and bubbly. Serve right away. Enjoy.